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How to go viral on social media: 8 tips I've learned along the way

My videos went viral on social media. Here's how you can, too.
I was invited to perform “Rhythms of Comedy” live on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" with millions of Americans watching at home. Here's what I learned.
I was invited to perform “Rhythms of Comedy” live on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" with millions of Americans watching at home. Here's what I learned.TODAY Illustration / Courtesy Josh Harmon
/ Source: TMRW

If you’re like me, you’ve spent the pandemic with two seemingly contradictory objectives: avoiding the virus and going viral. Luckily, by staying home all day to make videos, you can kill two birds with one stone.

Some people seek viral fame as a way to grow their business, to promote their personal brand or to “get discovered.” Some people are in it just for the thrill of feeling famous for a moment. No matter your end goal, growing your online presence can be at times frustrating and overwhelming. It can also be a lot of fun.

Five months ago, I started a video series on Instagram and TikTok called “Rhythms of Comedy,” in which I play drums alongside stand-up comedy and sitcom bits.

At the start of the pandemic, after moving back in with my parents, I began posting videos of myself playing drums just as a way to keep myself busy. At the same time, I set a goal of writing jokes every day to keep my comedy writing sharp.

While doing “research” on the subject (aka watching comedy on YouTube), I saw an interview with Jerry Seinfeld in which he said that he'll spend hours trying to whittle a single syllable off of a joke to get the rhythm just right. It gave me an idea to combine my two interests: comedy and music.

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I recorded myself playing drums alongside a clip of Seinfeld’s stand-up, catching every rhythmic nuance of his delivery in my drumming. I had fun and noticed my 200 followers seemed to enjoy it, so I made two more, including a clip alongside another comedy hero of mine, John Mulaney. I uploaded it to TikTok right before going to bed.

By the time I woke up, it had over a million views. My phone was dinging over and over with texts from my friends who had seen it. Hundreds of people were writing in the comments, “Please make more!” So I made another, and another. Twenty-eight videos later, I was invited to perform “Rhythms of Comedy” live on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" with millions of Americans watching at home.

My first Tonight Show appearance happened exactly as I had always dreamed: in between an exercise bike and a washing machine in my parents’ basement.

Overall, the series has received tens of millions of views and has been shared by some of the world’s top comedians and actors, including Ben Schwartz, Ken Jeong, Hannah Gadsby, Eric Andre and more. Both Instagram and TikTok have even shared them as a top trending video series.

Certainly, luck played a part. Somehow someone saw the videos then showed them to someone else who knew someone who knew Jimmy Fallon. But the success of “Rhythms of Comedy” also came with strategy and viral video technique. If you are looking to go viral or to gain more recognition online, here’s what I recommend.

1. Be authentic

Unless you are purposefully creating a character as a way to communicate or satirize something, the best way to connect with an online audience is to be yourself. I love comedy and I love to play the drums, and this comes through in the content I publish. In fact, the most frequent comment I get on any of my videos is “I love these videos because he’s smiling.”

I highly doubt that millions of people were spending their quarantines trying to learn about comedy, waiting, praying, for someone to make short and snappy videos confirming their suspicions that rhythm is an important aspect of humor. But since I have fun on camera, the enthusiasm is contagious.

This holds true for any content on any topic, no matter how strange or niche. So if you want to start making content but are not sure what the posts should be about, start with something you are passionate about and see if you can package it in a way that is unique to you.

If you want to pose in front of fancy cars or boast about the caviar you ordered for curbside pickup, that will work as long as those things are genuinely part of your personality. If you don’t live in a mansion, don’t pretend like you do. Not only is it more fun to make content about something you really like or know, but audiences are savvy; they can tell when you’re faking. What worked for me was making videos about something which is personal and true, which is why the series is not called “What it’s like to have a girlfriend.”

2. Create something that provides value to the viewer

There are more than 800 million users on TikTok alone with millions of videos being uploaded every day. On YouTube, over 500 hours of new content are uploaded every minute. These numbers can be discouraging (How will I ever stand out?) but they can also offer some guidance on what kind of content is most likely to go viral.

With so much already out there, content is more likely to stick if it offers something of value. Instead of hoping that viewers will give you their attention, give the viewer something they need. Value could be educational (a tutorial on how to do something), motivational (content that inspires action) or, simply, entertaining.

If your content has value, people will want to watch it. If you can turn that valuable content into a recurring and refillable series, people will keep coming back for more and you can create something truly remarkable — a fanbase.

3. Aesthetics matter (without being phony)

Social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram or YouTube are primarily visual platforms — think about how often you scroll through Instagram with the sound off. If you have the means, it’s worth investing in a nice camera and some lights. Your aesthetic is your first impression to the audience. A video that looks professional is more likely to grab someone’s attention when they first encounter it as opposed to something pixelated or janky.

My high school English teacher taught us how to write topic sentences for our essays by saying “the goal of the first sentence is merely to get the reader to read the second sentence.” Likewise, the goal of the first few seconds of an internet video should merely be to get the viewer to watch the next few seconds. You can accomplish this with a good aesthetic.

I noticed a significant bump in views when I started paying a bit more attention to how my videos looked, like this episode of “Rhythms of Comedy” featuring a clip from "Schitt’s Creek." I hung up a background, wore a nicer shirt that would give some color contrast and lit the scene using a ring light.

4. If your content is good, it will go viral.

When I first started posting videos, I would agonize over all the technical aspects of social media accounts. Is this the perfect caption? Did I use the right hashtags? Do I need to post this video at 12:43 p.m. GMT so that my three Croatian followers will see it during their lunch break?

While these things matter sometimes, I’ve found that it doesn’t matter as much as making a good video. I hope this will be encouraging to anyone trying their hand at making content. If the video is good, a friend of yours might share it with one of their friends and that’s all it really takes. You can go crazy studying algorithms, metrics, analytics, etc. — some people even pay for business courses claiming to reveal the secrets of social media growth — but from my experience, all that time is better spent having fun trying to make better videos.

5. Find like-minded people to collaborate with

Collaboration is one of the most powerful tools at a content creator’s disposal. It’s a great way to make friends and to broaden your creative horizons. On top of that, both accounts benefit from the combined exposure. If you find someone else online making similar content, join forces! Or if you can think of a way to integrate two different types of content that can produce an interesting final product, go for it.

For example, I collaborated with a popular TikTok personality Christine Snaps to make this:

6. Don’t dwell on the comments (good or bad)

People can be mean online. Engaging with comments and direct messages can be a good way to create a connection with the people who follow and support you, but no matter how good your content is, some people feel compelled to write negative comments. In fact, I’m sure someone will find something bad to say about this truly exceptional article. Social media has the power to pull you down into a pit of negativity, so focus on the good. With that said, it’s easy to let a lot of positive feedback go to your head, so take it all with a grain of salt and, again, focus on keeping your content valuable.

7. Beware of burnout

Social media platforms are designed to keep you online as long as possible, for both consumers and creators. There is pressure to keep churning out content day after day, and this can be exhausting — especially during a pandemic with so many external stressors already at play. One important lesson I’ve learned in the months I’ve been making internet videos is that it’s OK to take breaks. The people who follow you will be there when you get back.

8. If at first you don’t succeed …

It took a few months of making videos and trying different concepts before I had a hit. Right now, despite having a formula that works, I’m still trying to come up with new ideas to keep it fresh. Making good content takes effort. If you do have an idea though, post it. You never know who may see it and what could happen. Even if you’ve never made a video before, you can step outside your comfort zone ... without ever stepping outside the house.